The rise of junk food and bigger portion sizes along with less physical activity and access to healthy food options threatens the well-being of our children. In 2012, nearly one-third of all children living in the United States were obese or overweight. These children are more likely to grow up and become obese adults, battling chronic obesity-related health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. Obese children are also more likely to suffer from psychological issues due to stigma and poor self-esteem.[1]

In schools, obesity-related physical and psychological health issues can undermine academic goals. Studies show that obese children, on average, score lower on tests, have higher rates of absenteeism and are five times more likely to have six or more detentions.[2] Obese children may also face challenging social interactions while at school. For example, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 4 boys with obesity are stigmatized by their peers. This type of teasing in school settings can start as early as preschool.[3] However, in schools with programs and policies promoting physical activity and nutrition education, students have better test scores and exhibit higher levels of motivation, attention and self-esteem, as well as reduced anxiety and stress.[4]

Stand against bullying of children with obesity

  • Stop and intervene when a student is being teased about his or her weight, and learn how to reduce bullying in schools.
  • Emphasize health over thinness. Make sure health and nutritional messages are not encouraging just weight loss. This could lead to further issues, such as eating disorders.
  • Become aware of your own weight-based assumptions. Adults may unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes about obese children.

Ways schools can fight obesity

By improving school meals and increasing time for physical activity, schools create opportunities for students to practice healthier choices, in addition to learning about them.

1. Improve school breakfast and lunch

By teaching students to cultivate healthy habits early, schools can help prevent obesity in later adulthood.[5] One way schools can make healthy options available to students is through the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. These meal programs, which follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition standards, have been associated with lower rates of childhood obesity.[6] In addition, schools can make healthy options available by serving food from a salad bar, starting a farm-to-school program and applying for a school breakfast grant. Also, schools serving a high number of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals may qualify to serve free meals to all students.

2. Marketing school meal programs

A key ingredient in improving school meal participation is making school meals appealing to students. Fast food vendors spend $2 billion per year trying to appeal to kids, especially through in-school advertising.[7] Competing with these huge budgets is a challenge, but school personnel have the advantage of day-to-day personal interactions with students. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement provides simple, mostly cost-free marketing tactics for schools (with proven success), such as rearranging food items in the cafeteria, presenting food trays in a fun way, and coming up with creative names for menu items.

3. Competitive foods

Competitive foods are food items sold or served outside of the school meal program, such as a la carte items and items sold in vending machines, at snack bars, through fundraisers and at off-campus venues during school hours. In schools that allow the sale of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods, students have a higher body mass index. This increases the risk of obesity.[8] Wellness policies that limit the availability and consumption of such foods not only improve child nutrition but increase school meal participation. Smart Snacks gives schools resources to implement such policies.

4. Wellness councils

A school wellness council can advocate for and create a healthy school environment. Wellness councils can include school nurses, food service staff, custodians, school bus drivers, teachers and other community members. These councils can help with any of the strategies mentioned above, as well as starting a school garden, organizing farm visits and establishing a Harvest of the Month Program. Learn more on starting a wellness council here.